Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Weberman's Defenders & the Role of Dogmatic Belief

Like many, I've been following the developments of the Nechemya Weberman trial currently underway in Brooklyn. In short, he stands accused of sexually abusing a schoolgirl over a three-year period, starting at age 12, under the guise of "counseling."

One of the more disturbing things to watch as this case came to light has been the Satmar community's overwhelming support for Weberman, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his "defense fund" (which apparently was initially used to try and bribe the girl to drop the case and leave the country), as well as the constant harassing and bullying of the girl's family. In my mind, the girl's strength to persevere with her case under these circumstances is simply incredible - and incredibly inspiring.

The question I want to ask is this: Does having a culture of supernatural belief and metaphysical dogma make it more likely for a community to defend people like Weberman?

Well, it's certainly not required. Think of the OJ Simpson case, and how whites tended to believe he was guilty and blacks believed he was innocent. We tend to rally around people who are "like us". It's human nature. And think of the mafia and its policy of "omerta", the code of silence where people do not hand "their own" over to the police. The latter is similar to mesira, literally "handing over" a Jew to non-Jewish authorities, which in certain circumstances is prohibited in Halacha. In other words, you don't need supernatural belief to create a culture that protects its own. From an evolutionary point of view, it's probably built into us as part of our survival strategy.

But there's a difference between Satmar and the mafia. In the mafia, the idea is to protect your own even when you know they're guilty. It's a "family business" and it stays within the family. Now, the Satmar community has this mentality too (as do other insular Orthodox communities). But the difference is this: Not only does Satmar protect its own - they also believe them to be innocent. Mafia communities are not nearly so naive.

I would venture to guess that the knee-jerk "Weberman is innocent" reaction has partly to do with the dogmatic absolutism that "The Torah is from God and therefore perfect". And so it is impossible for Torah - or anyone connected and committed to it - to ever be wrong, or to ever commit such a heinous wrong. So the Satmar mentality is this: Weberman is a person who lives a "Torah life" (I know it's hard to stomach, but go with it), and in particular who holds the beliefs and stringencies of the Satmar world (which is seen in that community as the "true" Torah). Therefore anyone who challenges the "absolute truth" (and innocence) of this world is necessarily a liar and a rasha (evil person) who is against God and His Torah. So my hunch is that the community believes it is literally impossible that Weberman is guilty.

Now again, blacks defended the innocence of OJ. But that's arguably a reaction to years of victimization and unfair prosecution/persecution at the hands of whites. (That, and plain old racism, just like whites believing he was guilty.) Moreover, blacks would not take "offense" at the idea that OJ was guilty, as if it were a "sin" to say so. They would not think it would be logically "impossible" for him to be guilty. They wouldn't brand the prosecution as "anti-God".

So that's my thesis here: The belief in the Torah as God-given and "perfect" enables a mentality wherein anything or anyone connected with Torah is unassailable, thereby aiding and abetting accused sexual predators the likes of Nechemya Weberman. I say "enables", meaning even if you hold that the Torah is perfect, it doesn't necessarily follow that you'd believe people are perfect. However, the one belief enables the other, such that if you took away the magical "Torah can do no wrong" dogma, you'd undermine the magical idea that people connected with Torah can do no wrong.

Now I'd like to know: What do you think?

I also want to add that, assuming Weberman is found guilty, I hope that his case gives other victims the strength to come forward, and that it helps to prevent such horrific abuse from taking place in the future. As for the Satmar community engaging in any genuine introspection or "apologizing" to the victim and her family, I for one am not holding my breath. That's the frightening power of religious dogma. No "secular court" or evidence or truth can ever hope to prove it wrong.

UPDATE: (Dec 10, 2012) Nechemya Weberman was just found guilty on 59 counts, including sustained sexual abuse of a child, offenses which have the potential to land him in prison for decades. The defense plans to appeal the decision, and sentencing is scheduled for January 9th.

I imagine I'm supposed to be feeling happy, or at least relieved. But I find myself feeling decidedly melancholy, quiet, reflective. There is no "happy ending" to this terrible case. As I said above, I hope it results in less abuse, and I hope it gives the victim in this case (as well as other victims of abuse) a measure of solace.

UPDATE: (Jan 28, 2013) On January 22, Nechemya Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison.


  1. Nice piece, I especially like how you differentiate the defence motives of Satmar vs the Mafia.

    > Does having a culture of supernatural belief and metaphysical dogma make it more likely for a community to defend people like Weberman?

    Simple one word answer: yes.

    Remember, you are dealing with people whose frames of reference for reality are entirely different from ours. We live in a scientific world, we test claims, we are skeptical in the absence of proof. That's our reality.
    They live in a magical reality where the most absurd midrash stories are to be understood 100% literally. It's a totally different way of thinking.

    1. you are dealing with people whose frames of reference for reality are entirely different from ours

      Yep. I suppose that's why I'm on a bit of a "crusade" here. Really I prefer a stance of "believe and let believe". But what I'm seeing is that the fruits of certain beliefs can be absolutely poisonous, destructive. So I feel a moral obligation to speak out - not just at the "bad fruits", but the belief system that's (at least partly) responsible for generating them.

      The question is, what do we do about the fact that the communities where these beliefs are perpetuated are strengthening, on the increase? Are we fated to be a small "rebel alliance" of reasoned-thinkers surrounded by an empire of dogma? A bit of a dismal picture!

  2. You know, that's an interesting question. It brings up the whole "We won't use our enemy's tactics because that would make us no better than them". I've never been a fan of that line because, the way I see it, if the goal is to win then you do what you need to because if the bad guys win then no one will ever remember you were a great loser.
    Historical example: the Allies didn't beat Germany by playing with Marquis of Queenbury rules. They blew Germany to bits and gave as good as they got. And that's why they won.
    Here's a second problem: these communities not only have a strong dogma but part of it is that they see themselves as the only legitimate representation of Judaism. Being a good Satmar, for example, means looking at other religious Jews and thinking they're treif because they're not following Reb Yoelish's ideology.
    So is the only way to counter this to develop a dogmatic, muscular modern Orthodoxy that considers Satmar Chasidus and others like it an illegitimate form of Jewish practice and active encourages followers to rally around a flag of defined ideals? Lots of MO's are MO's specifically to be religious without having to do that but as a movement how can it hold its own ground without some level of fanaticism to combat the fanaticism it's facing?

    1. Anon,

      In terms of MO holding its ground, I think it probably sees "attrition" as its major battle (due to low birth rates and people dropping out of observance) rather than the fanaticism of more insular charedi sects like Satmar. Or if anything, really it's the more "mainstream" charedi world which poses a threat to MO, with more MO kehillot sliding "right". So then we'd be talking about the MO world campaigning against the charedi world, which is hard to do because it's not a sharp divide. Many MO kehillot are somewhere in the middle. And it could be that a full-force campaign to try to "delegitimize" charedi Judaism would push RWMO even further to the right.

      So I guess what I'm saying is I'm not sure what the solution is. But I do think you're right that either way the MO world could do more to articulate its ideals, rather than perceiving itself as the charedi world's "nebach little brother".

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Nice post. Also, Weberman wears a black hat and the whole regalia. Even some smart (but naive) people get sucked into the idea that the clothes mean something.

    1. Too true. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that smart people (even geniuses) are just as susceptible to fall for "shtuyot" and wrong-headed thinking as anyone else.

    2. Yes, this is one of my big taanot with orthodox believers, the "Rabbi Soloveitchik was a believer and he was way smarter than you."

      I once heard an awesome rejoinder "Isaac Newton was smarter than me too, and he believed in alchemy".

      Even the smartest person in the world can believe shtuyot he's starting with a premise that doesn't hold water.

    3. Apparently he believed in a plethora of wild stuff - I just skimmed through the wiki page on Newton's occult studies.

      But as crazy as a lot of it was, at least it was all fairly benign. He didn't use his beliefs to gain control over people, to vilify anyone who dared to challenge the dogma or power elite. Which unfortunately is more than I can say for some of my coreligionists...

  4. I tend to see it as somewhat similar to both the Mafia and the OJ examples. It's similar to the Mafia in terms of the idea of authority and the absolute taboo against going against the group and ratting someone out. It's also similar to the OJ example, in that Satmar is a group with a persecution complex. Most of the group are descended from Hungarian Holocaust survivors, so at one point the mindset was understandable.

    In terms of belief, though, this isn't just about a belief in the divine. It's about very specific beliefs that the custom of the group is equivalent to divine law, that conformity is good and sticking out in any way is immodest and bad, and that religious leaders in the community are entitled to the utmost respect. [I learned about this beliefs directly from Satmar women who were still part of their communities.] The idea of going against someone powerful in the community is therefore seen as extremely scary.

    At the same time, I would say that this mindset could also show a certain lack of belief, or possibly "avodah zorah" (idolatry). Why? Because people are believing in the power of community leaders and fearing "what will the neighbors think?" more than they are respecting the power of G-d. After all, being alone with a girl over 3 is a clear violation of halacha, and what Weberman is alleged to have done while alone with girls is completely forbidden. Somehow, though, defending the victim of a sinner is scarier than going along with his defenders here on earth.

    1. Very true about the persecution complex. Though I'm wondering if it's really so different from the sense of persecution that pervades the charedi world in general.

      I think you're right that Satmar and other insular groups may be more apt to see their specific customs as "divine law", though again to a lesser degree I think this mindset afflicts the larger Orthodox world. And I suppose this is my point - that the very notion of "divine law" enables it.

      About people caring more how they're perceived in the eyes of other people than in the eyes of God, again I think this is something that the greater religious world sees as a problem, and impossible to avoid given human nature. The attitude is then: Let people at least fear other human beings, so maybe then they'll come to fear God.

      Re: "avoda zara", it occurs to me as I write this that the classical concept of avoda zara is part of the problem. Strictly speaking it refers to "outside worship" - i.e. not that the worship is "false" per se but that it's "foreign", strange, different from the accepted norm, something brought in from the "outside". Which sounds a lot like the Satmar attitude you're talking about - fear of anything outside the norm.

      Maybe what we need is to change the concept from avoda zara to "avodat sheker" and we'll start to make some headway.

      Thanks for the comments!

  5. What I learned in online discussions with Satmar women is that if asked, "why do you do X?", they'll respond by saying, "it is our custom." They are taught that custom is equivalent to halacha. With other groups, I've noticed that someone will respond to a question of "why do you do X" by referring back to the sources of the halacha.

    The conformity issue also struck me. As someone who became more observant and who lives in a world where not everyone is Jewish and not every Jew is observant, it was always clear to me that following a specific moral standard will not always be the easy or the popular thing to do. It would require some real thought and struggle to determine what the right thing was, and then it would require moral courage to do the right thing. Again, what I noticed during some online discussions was blind conformity replacing this moral struggle. It came across in small matters (some women would reject some sensible advice about babywearing as an alternative to leaving babies in strollers outside of a store because "it's not done here"), and in matters where conformity or fear of what others would say would convince people to act in ways that were actually AGAINST halacha. Problems with physical or mental health issues would be stigmatized out of fear for future matchmaking.

    1. First off, I appreciate your sharing some of your experience with Satmar women.

      I'm wondering if part of the issue is simply lack of education for women, that they get their instruction b'al peh and haven't ever really opened a Shulchan Aruch. Meaning, referring to sources in halacha isn't in their skillset, nor would it even occur to them to do. Thoughts on that?

      Re: conformity, that's pretty darn extreme. Maybe instead of Baby Bjorns we should start marketing "Baby Baylas". And don't get me started with the physical health issue!